Julian Castro

Is this the latest disqualifier to run for president – no hardship story to tell?

Is this what it’s come to? Someone running for office must have a background story that is so gripping that we think that he or she came out of a Dickens novel. If the candidate can’t wow the socks off voters with how compelling his or her “womb-to-candidacy” story is, she might as well forget about running.

Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro announced on Saturday, January 12 that he is now a candidate for president of the United States. So, what does he want you to know? Here are some of the essential points to his story and how he tells them, in the order in which they appeared in his speech:

  1. He thanks his mom.
  2. He tells everyone that this is where it all began (San Antonio).
  3. He praises his wife and children.
  4. He praises his grandmother who came to America in 1922 and worked as a maid, cook and babysitter.
  5. He informs us that he rode to this announcement on Bus 68, as he did so many times as a kid.
  6. He wants everyone to know, “no frontrunners were born here.”
  7. He informs everyone that this is a community built by immigrants and families.
  8. He says his story would not be possible without the strong women who came before him.
  9. He says his family’s story wouldn’t be possible without a country that challenged itself to live up to the promise of America.
  10. He says, “You see, the lesson I learned from my mother and so many years ago in this community is that when we want to see change in our community, we don’t wait for it. We work for it.”

In no way do I want to discount the hardships that Castro faced nor the significance of his accomplishments. But this is the story that we hear repeatedly from so many candidates running for office. It’s as if Beaver Cleaver could never have run for office. Neither could anyone else in his family, or in his neighborhood, or in the world as he knew it. The same would be true for Ricky Nelson, or for the Cosby kids or virtually anybody who grew up in a semi-functional family which was not living paycheck-to-paycheck.

There is a third category of “life stories” that does not involve the kind of hardships that a Julián Castro or Barack Obama faced or the idyllic life of fictional TV families. It is the lives that most people live, where a lot of things go well, and frequently “shit happens.” Sometimes that shit involves an absent parent, or a close family member with addiction problems. It might mean going to school with a learning disability which is never diagnosed. It might mean feeling bullied, even though that would be invisible to almost everyone else.

It might be just the process of living a life in a very complicated world, where the pressures to succeed in school, in peer relationships, in the workforce, in child-rearing, and in navigating one’s way through everyday challenges is frequently fraught with difficulty, as it is for most people.

The people who live these lives have stories too. They may not include rags to riches or first generation-in-the-family accomplishments. But they are stories of lives that are difficult, because none of us has it easy. If we did, there would be no stories of privileged people who live in mental and emotional torment.

I wish Julián Castro well in his campaign for president. But I want to know about his political positions, and even more importantly, how he might be different from so many of the failed office-holders we have in our world. How is he going to handle the insidious role of money in politics? How is he not going to talk down to voters? How is he going to make time to continue to study issues, all the while being there for his family and friends? Could he prepare himself to deal with the harshness of political battles better than Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton? Would he be able to add a little bit of Lyndon Johnson know-how of dealing with Congress to the tremendous strength of character that Barack Obama had?

There is so much to know, and politics has a way of obscuring most of it. Mr. Castro, we’ll give you a pass on the first speech, but now it’s time to patronize us less and level with us more.